Catholic Relief Services Economic Justice Consulation Report Back

March 7, 2008

By Jody Treter


I’m writing from the Baltimore airport, headed home from two days of meetings convened by Catholic Relief Services (CRS) to share ideas and get feedback from stakeholders about the next decade of CRS’s fair trade program. CRS Fair Trade logoThe added bonus of the trip was that I got to spend some time with my good buddy and fellow bean activist, Chris O’Brien, who also attended the first day of the meetings. CRS invited Chris to present on the difficult-to-tackle topic “Where is Responsible Consumption Headed?” and he wowed the meeting particpants with his comprehensive understanding of “green” purchasing (as many of you may know, Chris O head’s up the Responsible Purchasing Network). CRS prepped us for the visioning session with several other short presentations including the history of CRS and their FT program, a snapshot of the FT movement today and an argument for why it might be a good approach to open CRS’s FT program to more mainstream partners for greater market impact.

Among faith-based development organizations, CRS is a leader. It’s newly finished LEED-certified building is the first sign that, indeed, CRS is walking their talk. In the world of Fair Trade, CRS began it’s work with the Work of Human Hands craft project in 1995. In 2003, CRS launched it’s Fair Trade Program which became the umbrella for several other initiatives including the Work of Human Hands, plus the FT Coffee and Chocolate Programs. The Coffee Progam, an ambitious and forward-thinking partnership between marginlized farmers in Nicaragua and 100% fair trade coffee companies in the United States, is a new twist on interfaith coffee projects. While the Presbyterians, Lutherans and others have programs that partner exclusively with Equal Exchange, CRS boldly created the first “localized” program encouraging dioceses and parishes to support their nearest CRS Coffee Roasting Partner, of which there are twelve in the States. This model serves to “share the wealth” amongst several roasters plus it better leverages the FT movement.

Now four years into their FT program, CRS leaders are carrying out the due diligence necessary to create a well-informed blueprint for the next ten years. This is no easy task. The goal is clear – how does the CRS FT program serve the overarching CRS mission to alleviate suffering and create dignified livelihoods for the poorest of the poor? Our contribution, as stakeholders of the CRS Fair Trade, is to assist in the creation of long-term strategies to this end.

CRS offered three ideas to help generate conversation around strategies for the future:

  1. Revisit the strict adherence to the Gold Standard for Partners (ie – can CRS’s impact be greater if it broadens it’s partnership criteria?). The small working group I joined focused on this issue and offered up a hybrid solution. First, it’s important to maintain (and even actively improve) the Gold Standard of Fair Trade (often referred to as the 100%ers or Alternative Trade Organizations b/c their business models are fully committed to the principles of fair trade). The partners who meet “Gold Standard” criteria should be distinguished from others as the preferential partners. But, when these partners can’t meet the need of a potential customer (ie – a large institution wants to purchase individual pods for coffee makers), CRS directs the customers to “silver” level partners and, finally, “bronze” level partners. The discussions were much richer but this is the core of our group’s proposal.
  2. Shifting from a “product” focus to “points of engagements”. My opinion is that the CRS FT message will have the greated impace if both a “product” focus plus a “points of engagement” strategy are employed. For example, CRS may choose to sponsor an up-and-coming Skateboarder to engage Youth on their own turf – a point of engagement – but, when a church calls to ask about where to purchase office supplies or coffee or chocolate, CRS should remain an authority (termed “trust provider”) by offering a list of products from their program partners.
  3. From advertising to advocacy: Economic Justice beyond consumption. This piece wasn’t taken on by a working group because meeting attendees felt like this issue would be covered under the other two topics. Economic Justice is the over-riding theme of the CRS FT program and should continue to be so. In the end, Fair Trade is just one tool in the greater struggle for dignity and sustainability within economic justice. So, perhaps, the CRS FT program should consider changing their name to the CRS “Economic Justice Program” and create a more comprehensive approach that includes 1. the promotion of authentic “gold standard” fair trade partners; 2. engaging companies that are slowly coming into the fold of fair trade and economic justice; 3. identifying and pursuing points of engagements for CRS constituents.

Kudos to CRS FT for lining up an impressive roster of movers and shakers for the visioning session! I’ve been impressed time and time again with CRS’s commitment to the involvement of their stakeholders and the time they take to nurture relationships. Representing the Fair Trade movement was Carmen Iezzi, ED of the Fair Trade Federation; Serena Sato of SERVV; Kimberly Easson of TransFair USA; Joe Falcone of Counter Sourcing Fair Trade Apparel; Allen Thayer of Handcrafting Justice/Fair Trade Uniforms. Rick Peyser joined from Green Mountain Roasters and many CRS staff/volunteers from several different departments attended including Abby Causey, a CRS FT ambassador from Virginia Beach; Lara Puglielli, who was instrumental in the birth of the CRS fair trade coffee program in Nicaragua; Chuck Paquette, Foundation and Corporate Relations at CRS; Barbara Myers, Senior Director of US Operations; Sarah Ford, Senior Technical Advisor for Partnerships; Shaun Ferris, Technical Advisor on Agro-Enterprise; Brian Backe, Director of Domestic Programs Support Unit; Juan Molina, CRS-US Southwest; Thomas Awiapo, CRS-Ghana; and last but not least were the tireless CRS Fair Trade Champions, Jackie DeCarlo and Katy Cantrell.

Thanks much for the provocative discussions and good humor! That’s all for now . . . need to catch my plane.


Is there Fair Trade Clothing for a Conscientious Coffee Drinker?

November 22, 2007

Conscientious coffee drinkers know to seek Fair Trade, organic, shade-grown beans for their morning buzz. But as important as coffee is to the world economy and to its millions of devotees, its just one of the many things we buy. What does an enlightened fair trade coffee drinker don when its time to pull on something as simple as a t-shirt?

Fair Trade began in the 1940s when a number of religious groups like SERRV International and Ten Thousand Villages started marketing hand-crafted goods from economically impoverished artisans in less industrialized countries in the global south. Other early fair traders created direct trading relations between Northern marketers and small Southern artisans as part of a larger political movement aimed at countering corporate-lead capitalist imperialism.

Eventually, fair traders, or “alternative traders” as they were also known, realized that commodity goods like coffee could be powerful levers in rebalancing the global trade machine since agricultural goods generate the most cash income for millions of the world’s poor. Today, a sophisticated global system is in place for verifying “fair” trading relationships between peasant farmers and the northern customers who consume the goods they grow. Just look for Fair Trade Certified coffee, tea, cocoa, bananas, wine or any of a number of other commodity food goods.

But the global apparel industry has yet to catch up. Worker exploitation still runs rampant throughout the world’s many sweatshop apparel factories. So where does a conscientious coffee drinker turn when its time to buy some threads (besides the thrift store)?

A handful of “sweatfree” clothing producers have been working to perfect a fair trade model for working with garment workers. Five years ago Maggie’s Organics helped a group of women in Nicaragua build their own factory called The Fair Trade Zone. They documented the story in a brief video called Ants that Move Mountains. If the tale of how these women overcame the destruction of Hurricane Mitch and built their own factory doesn’t make you want to go out and buy their camisoles, you must be a nudist.

A new business on the block is called Counter Sourcing. Company owner Joe Falcone recently contacted me to share news about their success converting the University of Wisconsin campus to cotton tees delivered through their fair trade channels. Here’s the model they use for equitable distribution of the profits made from the t-shirt trade.

Pie chart

An essential link that remains missing in the apparel trade is certification – who is verifying the claims made by companies like Maggie’s and Counter Sourcing? Personally, I have confidence in Maggie’s Organics since I’m friends with the owner and know her commitment runs deep at a personal level. Likewise, Counter Sourcing appears to be on the level; the founder has a long list of credentials from the garment worker justice movement, and I have social links to him too through a mutual friend that introduced us. These kind of social links are important in establishing credibility. But trusting a personal friend who runs a business is different from trusting an unknown company who makes a fair trade claim in a hang-tag without having any verification to back it up. Should the average consumer trust these company claims?

So the good news is that fair trade or “sweatfree” apparel is inching its way into the marketplace. Maggie’s and Counter Sourcing are just two examples of a growing cadre of conscientious clothiers; check out Co-op America’s National Green Pages for a directory of many more.

These small companies are a great start. They are blazing the fair trade trail for others to follow. In fact, Counter Sourcing even claims to be in dialogue with TransFair USA about creating a Fair Trade certification standard for clothing. That needs to happen, whether its with TransFair or another group, in order for this small movement to move beyond being a niche and become a viable strategy for replacing the conventional trade system – one that relies on widespread worker abuse and exploitation. For an example of how this leads to success, look at the growth the organic food movement has experienced as a result of the nationalization of standards with the USDA National Organic Program – organic has been the fastest growing segment of the grocery industry ever since the standards went into effect ten years ago. Its time for that to happen with fair trade clothing.